A characteristic feature of motile cells as they undergo a change in motile behavior is the development of fluctuating exploratory motions of the leading edge, driven by actin polymerization. We review quantitative models of these protrusion and retraction phenomena. Theoretical studies have been motivated by advances in experimental and computational methods that allow controlled perturbations, single molecule imaging, and analysis of spatiotemporal correlations in microscopic images. To explain oscillations and waves of the leading edge, most theoretical models propose nonlinear interactions and feedback mechanisms among different components of the actin cytoskeleton system. These mechanisms include curvature-sensing membrane proteins, myosin contraction, and autocatalytic biochemical reaction kinetics. We discuss how the combination of experimental studies with modeling promises to quantify the relative importance of these biochemical and biophysical processes at the leading edge and to evaluate their generality across cell types and extracellular environments.